Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I'm not sure how long I was on fire before I realized it, but it must have only been a few seconds. It was hard to tell at first. Firecrackers were exploding all around my feet, bottle rockets were whizzing past my head, and my motorcycle helmet was filling with smoke. So, I was a bit distracted. When I noticed that my shirt was burning, I quickly smothered it with my gloves, and immediately turned my attention back to jumping around in the hopes that no firecrackers would go off under my feet. When the smoke cleared I took a look at my shirt. The fire had left three mid-sized ragged holes in it. Fortunately it was only the outermost of my five layers, and it didn't actually belong to me; so, I didn't get burned, and I didn't lose a good shirt.

This was the Yanshui Lantern Festival. It will turn up on several top ten lists if you google "dangerous festivals." Once a year the streets of this ordinarily peaceful Taiwanese town fill with crowds of people decked out in several layers of heavy clothes, gloves, and motorcycle helmets. They follow a procession of statues as they're carried through the streets, periodically stopping in front of a shop with a red lantern hanging outside. The doors of the shop open, and a "beehive," basically an iron and wooden frame holding thousands of bottle rockets, is wheeled out. When lit, the rockets go flying off in all directions, most of them straight into the crowd. The idea is to frighten off evil spirits. When the barrage ends and the smoke has cleared, and all the fires have been put out, the procession continues on to the next shop, another beehive comes out, and another barrage ensues. As it turns out, getting hit with a bottle rocket when properly attired doesn't really hurt. However, even though you know you're protected, watching fireworks fly at your head is still pretty scary. My camera batteries died early on in the evening, but a quick YouTube search yielded a video that gives a pretty good idea of what it was like.

I took advantage of my three-day weekend and went to visit my friend John in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I confess that over the past few years I had developed a somewhat China-centric view of Taiwan - living in Beijing, you hear people talk about Taiwan as though it's some wayward province of China, and that peaceful reunification is inevitable. One person expressed their thoughts as such: "We waited for Hong Kong, we'll wait for Taiwan." After a while you sort of stop questioning it. So, I was expecting Taiwan to feel more or less like any other province of China.

This was not at all the case. The point was underscored dramatically literally as soon as I landed in Kaohsiung. A military transport, American-built, with a Taiwanese flag emblazoned on its tail was taking off on an adjacent runway as my flight was taxiing to the gate. The rest of the weekend was full of near constant, if less dramatic reminders that Taiwan really is not part of the People's Republic of China.

Kaohsiung is a fairly laid-back city in the south of Taiwan. It's big, but not overwhelming - traffic is manageable, the buildings aren't tall, and there are plenty of trees and parks. The weather was beautiful the entire time I was there - warm, sunny, and not too humid. It's hard to articulate, but there was something very different about being in Taiwan rather than the PRC. The people seemed friendlier and less guarded, and more willing to bend rules or go briefly beyond their job description if they felt like it. The Taiwanese security guard at John's apartment complex, Pepe, had taken it upon himself to beautify the courtyard with flowers and other potted plants, and had even added a fish and turtle pond to one of the flower beds. I never met anyone in his position in China who I could have envisioned doing something similar. Incidentally, Pepe seemed to have learned English from watching
Scarface, and went on a lengthy, profanity-laced tirade, peppered with random words in Spanish, about the cats he suspected of eating his turtles and what he would do to them if he ever caught them.

The Yanshui Lantern Festival was the main point of the trip. Other than that, I mostly spent my few days there catching up with John, exploring the city, enjoying good cheap food at day markets and night markets, and basically relaxing. Hong Kong is many things - dynamic, stimulating, cosmopolitan, and engaging - but it is far from relaxing. The change of scenery was welcome. All the same, it's good to be back in Hong Kong.